I just can’t say enough about honing your observation skills. Nature journaling is such an important aid in this quest, and a recent event in our backyard illustrates this point.
Every year, spring and fall, we have quite an influx of ruby-throated hummingbirds. Every few years, the numbers are greater than usual, and we’ll have as many as 20 to 30 birds buzzing our feeders at one time. Upon a cursory look, they all appear to be ruby-throated hummingbirds, making the same sounds, battling for the same feeders and territories. The fall of 2017 is proving to be a banner year for hummingbirds in our yard. The two feeders I had out didn’t seem to be enough- not only were there more birds than feeder ports, but the more aggressive hummers keep everyone else run off resulting in none of them ever getting more than just a sip or two at a time.
Following the example of homes I visited on the Homes Tour in Rockport, Texas several years ago at the Rockport Hummingbird Festival, I hung five separate nectar feeders under the eaves of our house just outside the sunroom windows. The feeders are separated by only about four feet each. This has partially solved the problem in that each feeder attracts a swarm of hummers, and occasionally several settle in for a long sip of nectar without arguing over whose feeder it really is. It’s easy to become complacent and get lulled by the constant buzz and chatter, thinking everyone is the same species. After all, the books say ruby-throated hummingbirds are the most prevalent in our area with very few vagrants passing through. I learned a long time ago that birds don’t read the field guides.
This year, much to our delight, a beautiful male rufous hummingbird has been visiting our feeders. My husband and I both commented that we thought we’d seen a ‘different’ hummer, being rather orange instead of the basic greenish ruby-throated species. Given that bit of insight, I set about close observation of my feeders for a few days, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Observation, especially of birds, involves not only our sense of sight, but hearing. The songs and calls of individual birds are sometimes the most important diagnostic tool when making identification. Let’s take the case of the little rufous hummingbird. There is another hummer, the Allen’s hummingbird, which looks a great deal like the rufous. However, by listening carefully and picking up the distinct qualities of the rufous’ voice, I was able to make a definitive ID. He has one particular vocalization that sounds like he’s blowing a little traffic whistle, which is quite appropriate. He’s very assertive and directs the other hummers mercilessly, running them off from his chosen feeder and defending his “territory” from a perch in a ficus tree which sits close by. The voice of the Allen’s hummingbird is different. The main identifying field mark between the two species has something to do with a notch in the tail on one of the species, and you almost have to have the birds in the hand (like bird banders do) to see this mark. When dealing with the females and juveniles of the two species, that notch in the tail is apparently *the identifying mark. Luckily, our visitor was male with fairly distinct male rufous plumage, and he blew his little whistle quite often!